After assembling a panel of local activists, academics, legal experts and others with an interest in same-sex unions, I thought I'd found a possible answer. Despite the fact that many of my single gay and heterosexual friends had already weighed in with cynical views on marriage ("the most oppressive institution in human history," said one), I assumed I'd find universally positive outlooks toward marriage among local activists. Our panelists surprised me, however. They all agreed it's important to grant equal rights and privileges to everyone regardless of sexual orientation. But some questioned whether the gay-rights movement should be focusing so much attention on marriage when, they said, there are other issues of more immediate import to gay people. Some went further, suggesting that the gay community should be promoting alternatives to the traditionally patriarchal institution of marriage.
Clearly, if North Carolina is going to take up this issue anytime soon, there will first have to be more of a consensus among liberals and progressives that legalizing same-sex unions is a political priority.
The following represents a much-condensed version of our discussion, which was conducted online over a week's time. Participants included:
Jeffery Beam, a Hillsborough writer who has been with his partner, Stanley Finch, for 20 years.
Mandy Carter of Durham, an activist and former national field director for the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum.
Jimmy Creech, a former ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. Creech's credentials of ordination were withdrawn after a church jury trial declared him guilty of "disobedience to the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church" for performing the holy union of Larry Ellis and Jim Raymer. He lives in Raleigh and travels the country speaking and writing about his experiences with the church.
Larry Ellis and Jim Raymer of Raleigh, who had a public commitment ceremony in 1999 at the United Church of Chapel Hill, performed by Creech and Pastor Jill Edens.
Todd Morman, who has worked as an AIDS educator and openly gay high school teacher, and is a member of Equality Wake County's Media Task Force. Morman writes a media column for Spectator magazine.
Mike Nelson, whose election as mayor of Carrboro made him North Carolina's second openly gay elected official.
Cheri Patrick, a lesbian, single mother and recent graduate of Duke University law school who practices family law, focusing on the gay and lesbian family.
Barbara J. Risman, professor of sociology at N.C. State University, co-editor of the journal Contemporary Sociology and author of Gender Vertigo: American Families in Transition.
Sharon Thompson, a Durham attorney and former member of the state House of Representatives. Thompson was co-counsel in a 1998 N.C. Supreme Court case regarding custody rights of a gay father, and recently was successful in defending Chapel Hill's domestic-partner benefits against a legal challenge.
The Independent: Let's start by mapping out a scenario for gay marriage in North Carolina. How might our fight for same-sex marriages compare to the battles going on in other states?
Nelson: It's extremely unlikely that North Carolina will pursue same-sex marriage anytime soon. I believe in my gut that someday the U.S. Supreme Court will have to rule that gay men and lesbians should have equal protection under the Constitution and that all rights and responsibilities granted to other Americans must be granted to us. Only then will our state grant the right to marry.
Thompson: You've got plenty of time to plan your gay marriage in North Carolina. I don't see it happening for years. Gay marriage will also take a long time to get seriously addressed on the federal level. The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet said gay citizens are entitled to equal protection. And since Congress hasn't passed a gay anti-discrimination-in-the-workplace bill since its first introduction 25 years ago, I don't see much hope there. (For more on the legalities of gay unions, see "Lawfully wedded in North Carolina?")
If we won't have marriage for gay people anytime soon, is there another way for homosexual couples to obtain the same rights as heterosexual couples?
Nelson: Carrboro has a domestic-partnership registration program. A couple, gay or straight, can come to town hall and register their partnership with the town clerk. This provides no legal benefits equivalent to marriage. What it does do is provide documentation that a couple has formed a bond, a partnership, that is valuable, important and deserving of respect. It's hoped that this registration will provide a leg up for gay and lesbian couples. For example, because same-sex relationships aren't recognized under the law in most states, hospitals often exclude same-sex partners from the decision-making process when a partner is taken ill suddenly. It's hoped that same-sex couples will be able to use our registration documents as proof of their relationship.
Risman: History has taught us time and time again that separate and equal is never really equal. As long as legal marriage is the institutional mechanism that straight couples use to legitimate their partnerships both socially and legally, it's the institution that will provide the most effective means for doing so. The Vermont model is better than anything we've seen up to now and should be supported, but it cannot be the goal for those of us interested in social justice--it still bases rights and responsibilities on whether or not partners are same or opposite sex, and that's going to end up benefiting opposite-sex couples.
Morman: Personally, I don't care what we call it as long as we have access to all of the legal rights. But polls that show resistance on the part of "liberal" straight people to the idea of letting us call our unions "marriage" really piss me off. I get furious when I see those numbers--like, job discrimination laws are fine, but oh, no! We can't allow them to have our Sacred Institution of Marriage! Tell it to the hand, Mr. and Mrs. 50 Percent Divorce Rate. Is anyone else tired of liberal straights who talk a good game?
Is the fight for marriage redefining the gay-rights movement itself?
Thompson: As a political pragmatist, I have several concerns about the current emphasis on gay marriage. First, it's a red flag for right-wing groups. If the goal is to raise political issues and awareness, we should be strongly stating our case for the right to marry whom we choose. However, if the goal is to gain certain rights as soon as possible, then is it more effective to fight for specific rights on a case-by-case basis? Which approach will get us to the ultimate goal of full equality quickest is hard to say, but I believe we should concentrate on some short-term goals like insurance benefits and custody rights.
Carter: "Same-sex marriage" is such an emotionally charged set of words that it gets in the way of folks understanding that what we're talking about is equal protection under the law. It makes me wonder why we continue to use those words if what we're asking for is civil protections. I do wonder if what we're talking about is mirroring an institution (marriage) that hasn't been that kind to women, that is very male-centered. It might be good to question if the word "marriage" is something we want to continue to use and to question marriage as an institution, and come up with new words and new definitions.
Creech: For much of history, marriage has been a social institution that has served the male-dominant culture by limiting, controlling and oppressing women. Because of the women's movements of the 1800s and 1900s, the ideal of marriage has been significantly redefined as a freely chosen relationship that exists between people because of mutual commitment and respect, equal participation and responsibility, and genuine love. The movement to recognize same-sex marriage is a logical step in this progression toward the emancipation of marriage from a patriarchal culture to a truly egalitarian society. The movement in support of same-sex marriage, based upon the ideal of marriage that emerged out of the women's movement, is another opportunity to redefine marriage as based on love and not gender.
Morman: It's important to remember, as the Indy focuses on "family" in its annual queer issue, that no one took a vote to ask which issues our community wanted to put at the forefront. These things happen with their own logic; in fact, I'd say the attention given to queer marriage over the past two years is more a measure of straight discomfort than anything else. The subject fascinates them--possibly a lot more than it does us. Despite Human Rights Campaign head Elizabeth Birch's apparent belief that the majority of queer people in the U.S.A. desire families that look just like hers, I haven't seen much hard evidence that she's right. Hell, we don't even have a good idea of how many of us there are, and all those marketing studies culled from upscale gay magazine subscription lists sure don't include me or my queer friends. It therefore makes very good sense to be wary of anyone who claims to know what most queer people want or don't want.
Thompson: I represent many gay clients in drafting partnership agreements or in resolving property disputes when they split up. I have begun asking my clients if they want to legally bind themselves to follow our state's marriage and divorce laws--thereby agreeing to equal sharing of assets acquired during their relationship and upon separation, possible entitlement to alimony, etc. Interestingly, many clients do not want to do so, either because it works to their financial detriment or, when it comes right down to it, they don't want to adopt all the rights and obligations that come with marriage.
Carter: I'd add that we should acknowledge cultural differences, based on race and class, when we use the general words "gays and lesbians." I know for me that when I say the words gay and lesbians that I think of white gays and lesbians. A major concern for me is that the "faces and voices of same-sex marriage" are those of white gays and lesbians. And some folks assume that these gays and lesbians are financially OK and thus can pursue a cause that some see as "not life-threatening."
Gay people have a chance to help redefine the nature of partnerships and the nature of families. Should we not be putting the emphasis on creating "other" models of family, as Todd and Sharon suggest? How can we do this if we accept as desirable the traditional modes we've been talking about?
Morman: It just might be that queer marriage is precisely the development that will allow the larger society the freedom to begin questioning the absurd valorization of the nuclear-family myth in this society. The extended child-rearing families we (so far) seem able to create could turn out to be a powerful example for the rest of the United States, including those straight couples who've already expressed interest in the idea of domestic partnerships. There's a significant segment of the population (aside from "radical" queers) interested in revising the institution of marriage. Polyamorous families, for instance, have been exploring these issues for years. It might be a fundamentalist's worst nightmare that queer marriage opens up space for honest discussion of polyamory, but I think there's a good chance it'll happen--and that the discussion will be a positive development for the rest of us.
Thompson: As a believer that "the medium is the message," I have concerns about what messages we are sending. As an old feminist, I spent so many years working to change the institution of marriage for women that it's hard to jump on the bandwagon that marriage is a panacea for the gay community. It also sends the message that the "ideal" life goal is an exclusive union of two individuals and one's life is not good or full enough without a partner. What I love about LGBT people is our creativity in relationships and the many different ways we have established "family." Why adopt such a limiting approach as "traditional marriage," which has not proven to be beneficial to so many? I prefer the definition: "A family is a circle of friends who love you." What actual benefits people are denied because they can't marry, how they are discriminated against, usually gets lost when the debate is just framed as "whether gay people should be allowed to marry." I also agree with Mandy that having gay marriage at the forefront obscures more important issues such as economic survival because you're fired for being gay or denied housing because you want to live with your same-sex partner.
Risman: As a feminist myself, I am all too aware of the means by which patriarchy has been enforced by marital norms. But as a sociologist, I also know that social institutions are constantly re-created day in and day out. We make of them what we need and want, and leave them quite changed for future generations. In the classic work by Phil Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz, American Couples, they found that gay couples are better (or were in the early '80s) at creating equal partnerships than heterosexual couples--they didn't have to struggle with gendered expectations for male dominance. Straight couples have much to learn from gay couples on this score.
To the extent that gay culture is a critique of mainstream culture, how much is that critique becoming attenuated by the co-opting of gay culture by the dominant culture? What role will marriage play in this?
Ellis-Raymer: We don't believe the widespread awareness and recognition (popularization) of gay culture will result in assimilation by heterosexual culture. The increased gay presence resulting from men and women becoming more visible in the political arena, Hollywood, television, even sports, has not resulted in mainstream society's attempt to emulate gay culture. If anything, the prospect of gay marriage hits too close to home for many heterosexuals who subscribe to the one-man, one-woman concept as defined by Judeo-Christian doctrine. Perhaps we are seeing an increased acceptance by some, but to many the prospect of gay marriage only serves to amplify the differences between gay and straight culture.
Beam: Gay culture may have contested the mainstream culture 30 years ago, but now, as I see it, gay culture is just a mirror image of straight culture. How different are we except what we do in bed? And generally, today, who cares? Does what we do in bed really contest our mainstream culture? No. It contests the residual "Christian" moral ethic which still claims to hold sway in our culture (and that residue still lives in our courts and in some of our institutions). Of course, anything creative and different in our culture contests the mainstream culture--that's a given. But I don't think our subculture contests the culture as a whole anymore than anything else.
Risman: I must agree with Jeffrey Beam here that there is no particular way in which gay culture is critical at the moment. On the personal level, my observation is that gay women and men are as likely to care about their suburban (or urban) homes, snazzy cars and consumer goods as heterosexuals. On the cultural level, I'd go way further than this and challenge whether a "gay" culture exists at all, in some unified or homogenous way. My read of the research literature is that urban gay-male culture is quite distinct from the worlds that lesbian mothers inhabit. My experience as a teacher is that my gay male students from rural communities do not see themselves mirrored in the research on San Francisco gay neighborhoods at all. So I don't think one gay culture exists to be critical of the mainstream. Now, there is (or was?) an urban hip male culture that is critical of mainstream culture--but I don't think in any leftist political way, but rather more pro-sex, more hedonistic (fewer children to have to wake up for early on Sunday morning)--and once upon a time was way more critical of monogamy. The pre-AIDS research literature was totally clear that even longtime gay male couples were not monogamous. The post-AIDS literature shows the ideology has changed dramatically.
Patrick: I don't think being gay is something done in defiance of mainstream culture, and as a parent who is seen at Little League more than at Women's Festivals, I would have to say I pretty much adopt mainstream culture. The only difference is who is standing beside me.
Morman: There's no doubt that some interesting and valuable elements of "gay culture" will be lost as the stigma disappears and we participate more fully in all aspects of society. I remember talking with a man years ago who was the principal of an all-black school in the '50s; he told me that integration, while desirable overall, had clearly disrupted some local African-American communities in permanent and often sad ways. It happens; the culture of support (and, to a lesser extent, opposition) disappears when acceptance grows.
Creech: I want to add that marriage should never be understood as an obligation and the only option for persons who want to be in a relationship. To make it such would only make it another form of oppression. A cultural revolution is in process, and everyone will benefit: gay and non-gay, female and male.